Despite India’s richness in culture, history, religion and progressive education, an element of backward conservatism persists, which relies on and propagates the implementation of conventional gender roles. Homosexuality is viewed as unnatural, a taboo and many times in the case of men, something which questions masculinity. The truth of the matter really is that acceptance of the LGBTQ+ society has not made its way into the masses due to the copious overflow of thoughts, cultural ideologies, religious theories and personal beliefs that everyone in the country is entitled to, which is one of the basic fundamental ethos of the democratic nation. Nonetheless, it would be incorrect to say that progress has been solely negative, as seen in legal rights proffered to the LGBTQ+ community.
In April 2014, India granted the legal recognition of the “third-sex” known as Hijra. Hijra refers to a general term for the transgender community of India, of which there is an estimated 2 million (BBC). It refers to transsexuals, cross-dressers, eunuchs, inter-sexual and transvestites. There are now quotas put in place for colleges and job opportunities. However, it is important to understand that legal recognition does not equate to social acceptance. This is despite the influential treatment of Hijras during the Mughal Empire and being a historically recognised community in cultural institutions such as the Mahabharata and Kama Sutra. Much of the discrimination today has roots in British colonial rule from 1897, which criminalised homosexuality and transgenders. Homosexuality until this date has not been decriminalized, but the recognition of the third sex leads a definite change to legal and democratic rights for the transgender community. Socially, Hijras still are not able to utilize their legal grants to integrate fully into society. They often rely on prostitution and begging to make money. Some consider Hijras auspicious and thus make money through blessing marriages and the birth of children. This has not meant that Hijras have made themselves an equal place in society, for they still suffer from hate crimes, educational discrimination and medical negligence. The deprivation of wealth, education and healthcare has meant that the transgender community of India also suffers from diseases such as HIV and AIDS, which can be prevented via safety and educational measures. In Mumbai, an estimated 18% of the Hijra community is HIV positive, compared to 0.3% of the general population (The Guardian).
However, this legal recognition of the third sex is a double-edged sword. While it has lead to legal rights, the government cannot impose beliefs on the public. This has resulted in the negligence of job quotas in most work fields, so Hijras mostly gain short contract jobs in service industries or with NGOs. Additionally, many transgenders want to be recognised solely as their binary sex instead of labeling themselves as transgender. Unwarranted labeling may stifle inclusion, inhibit integration and increase stigmatisation. The labeling of gender and their assigned roles plays a crucial role in India and the balance of society in this day, even in the mot unfair ways. Labeling in a community where baby steps are still being taken to ensure the complete inclusion for women in society leaves little space for the complete acceptance of transgenders.
Full acceptance will not be present in such a vast country until people in influential positions reach out to the people concerning such issues. Homosexuality must be decriminalized in order to allow inclusion and equality. The distinction between communities must be curbed in order to inform the public that everyone is equal in the eyes of the law. Moreover, the constant push and pull between religious beliefs, culture and the law will be a battle to combat since secularism in India does not adopt religion as an influencing factor in the law, but instead may employ the law to suit many religions and ideologies. Perhaps this influence is one of the strongest and prevents the government from deviating from an objective law that risks religious outrage in the country. In fact, the recognition of the third sex in all of south Asia including Nepal, Bangladesh and Pakistan is an anomalous development. Despite the progressive nature of these countries, there has been a lack of implementing the law, and thus the rights of the transgender community and the LGBTQ+ community as a whole have not greatly improved.
Development in this realm will be slow. However, it shows an open-mindedness in embracing inclusion of the LGBTQ+ community, especially among youth. It comes to show that the introduction of a law can guarantee equality and should be kept in mind when tackling the rights of the rest of the LGBTQ+ community. Social inclusion will come from the encouragement of organisations, people of power and influence, education and most importantly, time.
Anushka Sikka, Staff Writer